Christine Fair, an associate professor at Georgetown University in the US and an expert on Pakistan, delights in debunking misconceptions about the country and its madrassas. Few Pakistanis, she says, actually attend madrassas, and those who do typically only go for a couple of years, while violent extremists are not destitute illiterates but disproportionately well-educated.
Nevertheless, she has concluded that Deobandis are indeed the largest source of violence in the country and that Deobandi madrassas are increasing faster than others. What is more, the latest data collected contradicts earlier conclusions that madrassa attendance is not correlated with terrorism. “They don’t produce terrorists, but what they do is predict support for terrorists,” she says, suggesting that militant parents, including mothers, are more likely to place their children in madrassas. “I’ve had to do a volte-face on this. Just going to a madrassa [means that] you are more disposed to supporting these kinds of groups.”
Before evening prayers in Deoband, one of the students, 19-year-old Mohammed Abu Umamah, cheerfully confronts us outside the marble-paved mosque. He repeats Madani’s message of peace. “Some people in Europe are presenting the wrong image of Islam, insisting that Islam is the religion of terrorism,” he tells us. “But Islam teaches peace and Islam condemns the killing of any person.”
Across the region, however, from the Maldives to central Asia, hundreds of millions of moderate Muslims are increasingly alarmed about the spread of violent extremism in their own societies. Deoband may be preaching the importance of peace, but its mosques and madrassas are where many of the most violent militants spent their formative years, and the schools continue to proliferate. “The number of madrassas [in India] has multiplied four or five times in the last 70 years,” says Madani proudly, “and mosques by 10 times.” The signs are that madrassas will continue to multiply in south Asia for years to come.
Victor Mallet is the FT’s south Asia bureau chief
Photographs: Adeel Halim; Victor Mallet
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